The “Kafka Fragments” by György Kurtág in a new recording – culture

The “Kafka Fragments” by György Kurtág in a new recording – culture

“Someone tugged at my dress, but I shook him off,” Franz Kafka growls in a diary fragment. So the soprano hisses, the solo violin drags the listener into oppression with lightning-like strokes. This is guaranteed to be the shortest music drama in the world, eleven seconds long, embedded in a cycle of just such miniatures. The composer György Kurtág, born in 1926, achieved the feat of conjuring up a levitation in the absurdly sarcastic sequence of lyrical shocks in his long since legendary “Kafka Fragments”: a kaleidoscope of enigmatic thoughts, feelings and secret declarations of war in pill form.

Kurtág composed “Kafka Fragments” in the mid-1980s. It is a collection of diary scraps set to music, quotes from letters and notated ideas, arranged in a cycle of a good three dozen mini-songs that seemed to have been thrown out spontaneously. It’s great how the soprano Anna Prohaska and the violinist Isabelle Faust test the harshly emotional, intonatory and rhythmic limits of the songs in their new recording (harmonia mundi), with their desire for expressive wit or anger.

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(Photo: harmonia mundi)

The diversity of the texts, their intellectual nuances, protestations, moods, is also adventurous. Fragment 19 features a panicked scream from the singer, accompanied by the frightened violin, exclaiming, “Nothing like that, nothing like that”. What follows, as a message to fellow composer Pierre Boulez, is the longest piece at just under seven minutes, along a garland of microtonally quiet double stops on the violin and the brooding soprano gesture, the Kafka phrase: “The true path is over a rope that is not stretched high, but just above the ground . . .” Or in a deeply pensive, troubled tone, one minute: “My prison cell – my fortress”. And very long drawn out: “The limited circle is pure”. Pretty angry: “There is no having, only being, only dying, suffocating being”.

György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments” are able to stand up to Anton Webern’s legendary bagatelles in abbreviated form, they tell something in extreme concentration of form, expression and substance. Kurtág’s meticulous art of lyric compression can make one dizzy to listen to, although Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust always ensure emotional balance.

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